Why We Need a Children’s Book about DeathSeptember 25, 2019
by Jonathan Gibson
This is a guest post by Jackie Gibson. Jackie is married to Dr. Jonathan Gibson. They have three children—Benjamin, Leila, and “Baby Gib.” She serves alongside her husband at Westminster Theological Seminary.
“No one will ever read this book!” I said to my husband, Jonny. I had just finished reading a draft of his new kids’ book, The Moon Is Always Round. It centers on conversations he had with our 3-year-old son, Ben, after Ben’s baby sister, Leila, was stillborn at full-term in March 2016. Unsurprisingly, I’d cried through almost the whole book. So naturally I thought, What parent is going to read this to their children? What mom or dad is going to reach over to the bookshelf and think, “Ah yes, here’s the perfect bedtime story to send my child off to sleep”?
Four years ago, Jonny and I wouldn’t have chosen to read this book to our son, either. We certainly wouldn’t have chosen for its story to become a reality in Ben’s world. He had enjoyed a happy childhood; we never imagined he’d have to experience the horrors of death so early in his life, and so near. We never guessed that the first sibling he’d hold would be his lifeless little sister. We hoped Ben would enjoy a long, carefree childhood before this groaning world groaned so loudly he couldn’t ignore it. But instead, death came early—unexpected—and cruelly smashed our hope into pieces.
Giving Kids the Blessing of Mourning
But instead, death came early—unexpected—and cruelly smashed our hope into pieces.
While Death felt like a ruthless intruder, picking his victims at random, we were anchored by what the Word of God taught us to be true: God ordains whatever comes to pass (WCF 3.1). It was tempting to accuse God of cruelty—Satan certainly whispered this lie into our ears—but we knew God’s character couldn’t be redefined by our experience of tragic loss. As Charles Spurgeon wrote to his bereaved daughter and son-in-law, “Our Father is never mistaken or unkind.” Would Jonny and I wrestle with this tension alone, or would we invite our young son to wrestle with us?
The preacher of Ecclesiastes tells us: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart” (7:2).
The living should take this to heart—which includes children, not just adults. Often, when we go to a house of mourning, we leave our children at the door. But if “a sad face is good for the heart” (7:3), then why are we withholding this good thing from them? We talk about shepherding our children’s hearts more than just correcting their behavior. But when it comes to sad things in life, we tend to wrap up their hearts in cotton wool and lock them away.
In the providence of God, Ben has seen adults weep; he’s walked down a church aisle beside a tiny, white coffin; he’s sat through a funeral loud with lament; and he’s helped his dad plant grass seeds atop his sister’s grave. We never expected these experiences would become precious gifts from the Lord, but they have. In this darkness, God’s light has shone brighter than ever before for Ben. When we remember his sister Leila, we talk about the joys of heaven. When we feel Leila’s absence, we remind him this world is not our home. As we stand in a Cambridge graveyard, we tell him about the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. In all of this, we have the privilege of teaching him God is always good, even in our darkest moments. Just like the moon is always round, even when we can’t see all of it.
God is always good, even in our darkest moments. Just like the moon is always round, even when you can’t see all of it.
A few months ago, we found out I was pregnant after some years of barrenness since Leila’s death. Yet we have learned not to be presumptuous. We’re all too aware of the fragility of new life. The other evening at family worship Ben prayed, “Dear God, we thank you for the baby in Mom’s tummy. We pray this baby wouldn’t die. In Jesus’s name, Amen.” Did he pray this prayer through tears and with deep anguish? No. He prayed quite matter-of-factly, actually, because he’s experienced firsthand the fleetingness of life and knows we can’t assume happily-ever-afters. He knows the reality of this broken world in ways many of his peers do not. And we see that as a sanctifying, precious gift from God. His sister’s body may lie in a grave in Cambridge, but his Father in heaven has not given him a stone (Matt. 7:9).
Learning to Trust
Which is why I’ve changed my mind about my husband’s book. Many parents will not want to read it to their children, but they ought to. Our children live in the same fallen world that we do. Sooner or later they will see suffering and death, and they will start to ask the question we’ve asked: If God is good, why did he allow this?
When that day comes, how will we answer our children? Will we leave them outside the house of mourning? Will we hide our sad faces from them? Perhaps instead, we could hold their hand and walk with them into that house of lament. Perhaps we could let them experience the darkness of suffering and death, and we could tell them it’s okay to feel sad.
And then we could tell them about Jesus, who went into an even deeper darkness on Good Friday, long, long ago. As he hung on the cross, there were no stars in the sky, not even a sliver of the moon to give him some light. And yet, in that darkness, he knew God was good. God is always good. Just like the moon is always round, even when we can’t see all of it.
In the Word, On the Go: 9/11/2019September 11, 2019
by Jonathan Gibson